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Childhood pastime grows into serious collection

Like millions of American women, Anne Tolstoi Wallach grew up playing with paper dolls. She spent hours clipping them out of her mother's magazines, dressing them in their fragile outfits, and sending them off on countless imaginary adventures.

But unlike most of those women, Ms. Wallach, a novelist and former advertising executive, still buys, swaps, and treasures those tabbed and slotted playthings she so enjoyed as a child. Now a collector of paper dolls spanning two centuries, her collection ranges from the exquisite hand-painted dolls of the 18th century to those inspired by movies and television shows.

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There was, however, a significant gap between the time she played with paper dolls and the time when she began collecting them. ''Although I never lost my fascination with paper dolls, it never occurred to me that they could be taken seriously enough to collect,'' says Ms. Wallach. ''I was quite stunned one day when I walked past the window of an antique shop in Greenwich Village and saw some Rock Hudson paper dolls from the 1950s priced at $50. I then realized that my idea of collecting them wasn't so farfetched.''

She began her collecting by asking friends if they had saved any of their paper dolls from childhood. ''To my surprise, I found that every woman I talked to had at least saved one or two. I was also surprised at the enthusiasm they felt for the project. Many were glad to have their paper dolls preserved for posterity in my collection.''

The collection grew steadily as Ms. Wallach pored through old magazines where many paper dolls were printed, looked in antique shops, and swapped with the other collectors she met through paper doll newsletters and conventions. Last year she made her collection the focus of a beautifully illustrated book called ''Paper Dolls: How to Find, Recognize, Buy, Collect, and Sell the Cutouts of Two Centuries'' (Van Nostrand Reinhold).

''Because so little has been written about paper dolls, it proved to be much more difficult than I had dreamed,'' says Ms. Wallach. ''Just generating any interest among publishers in the project seemed impossible. Then the research posed problems because of the lack of documented material. It involved trips to scores of museums and plowing through mounds of mimeographs.'' Adding to the challenges is the fact that Ms. Wallach wrote ''Women's Work,'' her best-selling novel about the advertising world, at the same time as the paper doll book.

She encountered the first obstacle in her research when trying to determine the origin of paper dolls. ''There was an old legend accepted by many collectors that Marco Polo brought paper dolls from China to Europe in the 13th century. That is nonsense. Even though paper religious figures existed in China and Japan , they were not toys and bore no relation to paper dolls. Both scissors and even the concept of childhood itself had to be invented before paper dolls came into being.''

Ms. Wallach believes the first paper dolls used for amusement came from 18 th-century France, where the little paper puppets called pantins were a great favorite at Versailles. Then in the early 1800s, when children in Europe and America had more time for play and printing became less expensive, paper toys and dolls began to be produced widely.

A large part of ''Paper Dolls'' traces the history of these playthings, the examples and illustrations coming from Ms. Wallach's own collection. What this history reveals is that paper dolls are very much a record of the fads, fashions , cultural attitudes, and even world events that have concerned Americans and Europeans over the past two centuries.

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The paper dolls of the early 19th century, like many toys of that era, seem more concerned with teaching moral behavior than providing amusement. One example in the Wallach collection is an English book of paper dolls called ''The History of Little Fanny Exemplified in a Series of Figures.'' The hand-colored paper dolls, which are pre-cut and consist of paper heads that can be fitted on paper costumes, illustrate the adventures of a little girl who runs away from home with a group of beggars only to return later, sadder but wiser.

As the century progressed, paper dolls evolved into beautifully crafted playthings; companies such as McLoughlin in America and Tuck in England produced exquisitely colored and detailed dolls with costumes that reflected all the frills and flounces of the era. By the 1890s children could clip their paper dolls out of many women's magazines and Sunday newspaper supplements and even find them tucked into cereal boxes and sacks of flour.

The invention of motion pictures was to have a great influence on paper dolls , beginning with the paper images of Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow printed in the 1920s. Shirley Temple paper dolls were perhaps the most widely produced, but Sonja Henie, Judy Garland, Claudette Colbert, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, and dozens of other stars were popular subjects as well.

The movie ''Gone With the Wind'' inspired two authorized editions of paper doll sets that include all the major characters from the film. Today these paper dolls are the most sought after of all those based on movies, worth $400 or more for a set in good condition.

Although the paper available during World War II was of poor quality, paper dolls nevertheless reflected the war effort. Little girls dressed their dolls in the uniforms of WACs and WAVES and sent them off to war. A particularly unstereotyped paper doll set in the Wallach collection is ''Girl Pilots of the Ferry Command,'' which features female soldiers dressed for battle.

Paper dolls of the postwar era reflected the American ideal of the nuclear family. This is nowhere so evident as in the 1954 set ''We're a Family'' in which the paper doll family of four and their costumes are connected together in one piece.

Although early television shows inspired a few paper dolls, the toys dropped sharply in popularity by the late 1950s. ''The age of plastic and television was their downfall,'' Ms. Wallach believes. ''Once children could be entertained just by turning a dial, they lost the patience for the tedious work of cutting paper dolls. And Barbie dolls with all their accompanying outfits took over the market as well. When I bought some paper dolls for my own little girl in the late 1950s, I found she had no interest in them at all.''

But if children have lost interest in paper dolls, the interest among collectors is growing all the time. ''They are surprisingly easy to collect,'' says Ms. Wallach. ''There are more of the early ones around than you might expect because they were made of such high-quality paper. One of the best sources is to look in early copies of the Ladies' Home Journal and other women's magazines where you can find whole pages of them uncut.''

Uncut paper dolls are usually twice as valuable as the same versions that have been cut. And as with most collectibles, the prices of paper dolls can vary considerably; advertising and magazine paper dolls from the early 1900s can be had for a few dollars, while the hand-colored 18th-century dolls may command $1, 000 or more.

Ms. Wallach encourages anyone who has harbored a secret desire to collect paper dolls to do so. ''Everyone who wants to collect paper dolls thinks she is alone and silly,'' she says. ''But then when you get started, you see how wrong you were.''

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